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Utopia? Ha! Good one!

Contrived, explosive personality mix ensures regular fireworks a given on society-creating 'reality' show

Posted: 09/4/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Without conflict, there is no drama.

Without contrivance and manipulation, there is no "reality."

The former statement can be applied to life in general; the latter, however, applies directly to the TV-production community; more specifically, it refers to the way most producers of "unscripted" programming create shows that fall under the ever-more-inaccurate heading of "reality TV."

From Survivor and Big Brother to The Bachelor and The Apprentice, so-called reality-TV programs are structured and, more importantly, cast with the specific aim of creating friction and confrontation between individuals with dissimilar personalities and varying degrees of social dysfunction.

If you're a fan of Survivor, it's likely that the castaways you recall most clearly are the villains -- folks like original sole survivor Richard Hatch, self-proclaimed greatest-ever player Russell Hantz and ultimate family-crisis fibber Jonny Fairplay. Same with Big Brother, where anti-social houseguests such as Jun Song, Dick Donato and Ronnie Talbott tend to make the most lasting impression.

The Apprentice's Omarosa Manigault actually spun her boorish boardroom behaviour into a TV career. And no season of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is complete without one scheming suitor -- who could forget Vienna Girardi or Wes Hayden? -- whom the others think is on the show "for the wrong reasons."

Casting for conflict is a staple of the reality-TV game, and it isn't all that hard to do -- by their nature, people who apply to be on these shows are attention seekers; within that pool of extroverts, it's easy to find a sub-group of fame-cravers whose desire to be the centre of attention pushes them over the thin line that separates enthusiasm from anti-social excess.

Which brings us to the latest entry in the "unscripted" genre, Utopia, which premières Sunday, Sept. 7, at 7 p.m. on Fox and Citytv. The series' logline refers to the show's participants as 15 pioneering Americans who "wave goodbye -- for an entire year -- to the lives they've known, move to a remote location and set out to create a society from scratch."

For TV viewers hereabouts, the description might conjure memories of Pioneer Quest: A Year in the Real West, the 2000 "living history" series that followed two couples -- Tim and Deanna Treadway and Frank and Alana Logie -- as they spent a full year trying to replicate the prairie-pioneer lifestyle on a homestead lot near Argyle.

As reality-TV projects go, the series was as purely unscripted as its producers could make it. The couples were chosen for their eagerness and aptitude; there was nothing remarkable or anti-social about any of them. And as a result, the conflict captured by Pioneer Quest's cameras tended to be between the sodbusters and the harsh environment rather than anything of an interpersonal nature.

Some, including this TV observer, would argue that Pioneer Quest was great TV precisely because of its lack of contrivance and forced friction. Others, however, would probably view the locally produced project's simplicity as quaint and, well, boring.

Utopia, an ambitious U.S. adaptation of a Dutch TV concept, will follow its 15 participants as they try to build a society from scratch in a rural California location. After its special Sunday première, the series will air Tuesdays and, on six occasions, Fridays. Fans will also be able to follow Utopia online 24/7 at www.UtopiaTV.com.

But if you want to know what Utopia's producers are really trying to create, look no further than the list of "pioneering Americans" selected to take part in the year-long experiment. Evangelizing pastor, meet naked-yoga-enthusiast survival prepper. Christian vegan chef, meet gun-loving libertarian hunter. Moonshine-brewing hillbilly handyman, meet cheese-making polyamourous relationship seeker. Control-freakish serial-dating lawyer, meet holistic-medicine-practising tantric-sex-enthusiast life coach.

If that isn't casting for conflict, I don't know what is.

"The whole point of this is it's not a game show," was how series producer Conrad Green assessed Utopia recently during Fox's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "It's not a competition. There's not a prize. It's not motivated like a lot of these types of shows.

"What we're hoping to see is something unique play out, which is people from very different backgrounds across America coming together, working out their differences, working out new ways of structuring a society. And we think the process of that happening will be fascinating, on both a personal level and sort of on a social level, too."

Perhaps that's what the show's makers truly believe. But by casting it as they have, they've followed a very familiar reality-TV blueprint, and created a version of Utopia in which Omarosa and Russell Hantz would feel much more at home than ol' Pioneer Tim.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2014 C6

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